Post #1: In Search of the Sublime
Eric Tse
April 6, 2020

As a starting point, the following posts will be part travel blog, part rumination, and part development of the EDGZ praxis, all in search of a more meaningful, deeper, and rigourous Architecture, one that connects people to place and instills a sense of delight and awe.

Though truncated and not completely fleshed out with full academic rigour, nonetheless writing blog posts is one way to force ideas out of the head and onto paper, so to speak. I've often thought about writing blog posts, to concretize the random thoughts swirling around my brain, as I'm sure many people do, but the strategy and drive really came from listening to the Pat Flynn’s Smart Passive Income podcast. Writing short blog posts fits my working style better too. If I tried to sit down and write it all at once, it would never happen – there are always other main projects going on, life stuff to do. But I can block out 15-30 minutes each week in my calendar and slowly build up a body of writing.
Praxis: How theory is implemented, which in architecture means building buildings.
Side note: speaking of blocking out time, the perfect task management app is a simmering side project in my head. I’m currently using Paymo, as it has decent weekly calendar time blocking capabilities that link to task time tracking and Gantt charts. It’s not perfect but so far it’s the most suited to my working style of the 50+ apps that I tried and researched, including obvious picks like Asana, tech-y Jira, or architecture-focused Monograph.
Back to the topic at hand, the genesis of this blog and my thoughts on architecture have been slowly brewing, precipitated by many travels over the years. I am an architect (currently based in Toronto, Canada), so when I get vacation time with my partner (non-architect), we tend to organize our trips around buildings, typically design-forward works.

I started adopting the word ‘Sublime’ to coalesce my thoughts on architecture, after travelling around to see various buildings and contemplating why I like some versus others. A long time ago a friend once asked, “What kind of buildings do you like?” As architects, we often know which specific buildings we like (and which specific buildings we do not like), but determining a categorical descriptor requires some thought. Even the venerable Peter Zumthor admits as much in his book, Thinking Architecture.* I responded that I like buildings that are "interesting" – anticlimactic, no? They also seemed disappointed in my answer. I mused, there must be a better word.
*Peter Zumthor – Thinking Architecture
Pg. 43: "And when we recalled buildings that had the characteristics we were looking for and pinpointed their special qualities, we became aware that there are buildings that we love. And whereas we knew almost at once which ones belonged to the special category in which we were interested, we found it difficult to find a common denominator for their qualities. Our attempt to generalize seemed to rob the individual buildings of their splendor.
But the subject continued to prey on my mind and I resolved to try and write some brief descriptions of architectural situations that I love, fragmentary approaches based on personal experiences that have a connection with my work, and In so doing to move within the same mental framework in which I think when I am concerned with generating the essentials of a work of my own."
When the Sublime bubbled up one day from my architectural education subconscious and I applied it to my aesthetic predilections, it seemed to click. I say that I ‘adopted’ the word because the Sublime has roots in aesthetic philosophy and architectural theory. I am by no means a critical theorist (in grad school I actually tried to skip those courses because I wanted to get to the "cool" stuff, read: computational design, parametrics, etc.), but I found resonance in the Sublime with my own thoughts. My brain served to bring up distant memories of German philosopher Immanual Kant (b. 1724-1804) and theories of the Beautiful, Ugly & Sublime. I remembered reading about that feeling of awesomeness, in juxtaposition to the straightforward Beautiful and Ugly, achieved in a state of detached contemplation of some phenomena, as when observing a tornado from a window afar. From Wikipedia: “In aesthetics, the sublime;(from the Latin sublīmis) is the quality of greatness, whether physical, moral, intellectual, metaphysical, aesthetic, spiritual, or artistic. The term especially refers to a greatness beyond all possibility of calculation, measurement, or imitation.” This is a bit grandiose – in my interpretation I would simply say that the Sublime means to elicit some feeling of awe, as expressed through architectural tectonics.**
** Side note on tectonics, an architectural term: I have heard it described as the art of construction. I would define art as part craft and part vision. Thus, tectonics can be thought of as understanding the elements of building (materials, mass, space, void, light) to craft a vision or concept. The simplest example of this would be the floating wall look, often found in museums, achieved by mudding in a D300 Z-shaped trim at the base of a drywall partition to create a shadow line and make it appear to hover slightly above the floor.
This seemed fitting because when I thought about it, I tended to like buildings that evoke a sense of awe through their tectonic expression and experiential qualities. This means I am drawn to buildings that are conceptualized and detailed in such a way as to evoke a sense of awe by not readily revealing their construction. For example, I appreciate super thin Japanese surfaces or massive Brutalist forms, or that wondrous feeling of natural light washing down a wall from a hidden skylight above. On the other hand, for example, I am not drawn to piece-y British High-Tech or exposed board & batten. The Sublime is counter to superficiality and appliqué. A simple exercise is this: if you look at the end of a typical thin drywall partition in a house, you know that it is simply a 2x4 with drywall both sides – not Sublime; to effect even just the slightest feeling of Sublime, you could either taper the wall to a point or thicken it and form a mass, thus when you look at that wall now it makes you wonder a little, how was that made?

Throughout our travels so far, from Japan to Europe to Scandinavia, I have observed that the Sublime is one of the defining characteristics of buildings I find remarkable. It has been the root of my thoughts on architecture and lately I have been thinking more about how it plays into developing the bigger picture of my own paradigmatic practice/praxis. As a teaser, the Sublime is one part of the aspirational principles that form the foundation of the practice in its current conception, acronymed as EDGZ. E stands for ’Exoteric’, D stands for ‘Distilled’, G stands for ‘Gesamtkonzept’ (a riff on architectural term Gesamtkunstwerk), and Z stands for 'Zen-blime' (a portmanteau of zen and sublime). Each of these aspirational principles has a defining characterization, another acronym – MACE: Methodological, Aesthetic, Conceptual, Experiential.

These aspirational principles will be explored in future posts. I should note that this forward-presenting paradigm is but one facet of the practice, for it cannot be understated the importance also of service and systems, which are essential for creating lasting partnerships. Each project, at least in the traditional mode of practice, is a melding of minds, where clients' vision and architect's praxis interplay to manifest structured reality. Our stake in this sublimating process is both as a professional as well as an auteur, for we endeavour to guide and serve the client with utmost professionalism, through constantly improving streamlined systems and committing to prompt communication, while also striving to craft new visions through the EDGZ paradigm with every effort. Making a building is no small feat, involving myriad parties with sometimes conflicting interests amid the constraints of physical reality, so our outlook is always that each project should represent stakeholders' interests with conviction and elicit those feelings of delight and awe integral to our search for the Sublime.

To be continued…
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